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The Challenges of Having a Mental Illness in Qatar

Updated: Nov 13, 2021

Trigger Warning: This article will discuss mental illness and there are mentions of suicide and other negative experiences that occur amongst mentally ill people.

The World Health Organization (WHO), a United Nations agency, states that 1 in 4 people around the world will experience a mental illness at some point in their lives. Dr. Majd Al Abdulla, the deputy chair of psychiatry at Hamad Medical Corporation (HMC), says “mental health disorders are among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide.” Additionally, 20% of people in Qatar have a mental illness according to Qatar’s National Mental Health Strategy 2013-2018. These facts reasonably lead to the expectation that developed countries, such as Qatar, should have a robust mental healthcare system, as well as a general understanding of mental illness amongst members of society.

On the 9th of May, 2017, a study was published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment journal titled, “Stigma Associated with Mental Illness: Perspectives of University Students in Qatar” by Monica Zolezzi et. al. Zolezzi concluded that 50.2% of university students believed that “mental illness is a punishment from God.” This statement reveals a religious stigma that is highly prevalent within society. 

Qatar is a Muslim majority country, which means that religion and everyday life are strongly interconnected. Alice (not her real name) is a young woman in her 20s who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree. She was first diagnosed with a mental illness at age 14 while living in Qatar and has continued to struggle with mental health issues such as anorexia nervosa. When Alice was asked if she thought being mentally ill in Qatar was worse than being mentally ill in other countries, she replied “I believe being mentally ill in Qatar could possibly be worse… I was faced with judgemental and… ignorant medical staff who recommended I turn to religion to cure my crippling mood disorder.” 

Robert (not his real name) is a young man also pursuing his bachelor’s degree. He has lived in Qatar his whole life and has been diagnosed with mental illnesses such as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and psychosis related to stress from severe trauma. He survived a suicide attempt at age 13, which is when he began to receive psychiatric treatment. Robert states that he feels the source of the stigma against mental illness in Qatar is partly a result of religion. He cited, “A therapist throws ayahs [verses] at me from the Quran. It’s frustrating because this… pushed me away from religion.”Robert says that the “constant pressure of God said… this and that” was difficult to handle because it contradicted what was happening in real life. A professional, making a statement based on religious values, would say, “You should respect your family,” which clashed with the reality that “My dad is an abuser.” 

These interviewers demonstrate that mentally ill young adults are often advised to turn to religion as a cure-all. This actually alienates them from religion when they are not ‘cured’. Robert continues that he eventually “completely changed my perspective of viewing religion. I think how it was presented to me was in a toxic manner… It takes time to relearn religion… to relearn God [from how He was negatively presented to you].”

The professional biographies of psychiatrists and other mental healthcare professionals on the websites of hospitals based in Qatar show highly accomplished individuals. There seems to be a dissonance between this image of a highly capable available resource, and the experiences of Alice and Robert while receiving treatment. 

Alice describes being placed in the only female inpatient psychiatric ward in Qatar at the time. She was very young and the patients surrounding her were all older women. “Many were severely sick and it was heartbreaking to see these women left to their own demons.” When speaking of the professionals she was treated by, she states, “The lack of empathy and comfort could not reassure the scared young girl I was.” 

In an angrier tone, Robert states, “The only reason I have to fix myself is because none of these therapists are doing their fucking jobs,” and “I should not have to wait four weeks after a psychotic breakdown to get a referral.” 

Alice even reveals that “I had to move from Qatar to Europe to get treated properly,” as she felt that, in Qatar, doctors were “more fascinated by my case than determined to help.”

The cultural stigma within Qatar on the topic of mental illness can be seen in the report by Zolezzi, in which 88% of university students said they would not marry someone with a mental illness. The report describes attitudes and beliefs about mental illness being shaped by knowledge and cultural stereotypes. 

Robert thinks that the reason there are no statistics that tell us the reality of how many suicides occur is due to the fact that no one wants to “bring forward the stigma that our child killed themselves.” His mother, who has been very supportive, refrains from telling family members because she “doesn’t want to put the pressure on them.” 

Alice remembers how “my own family was terrified of the news of me being sick getting out.” There is a fear of sullying the reputation of a family in Qatari society. Robert’s friend was told, “You don’t want to be associated with him,” an act to suppress and stigmatize the mentally ill.

Both the sources interviewed agreed that more than on-paper qualifications, mental health care professionals need to have the ability to empathize with their patients in order to help them. However, it can be difficult for doctors to have the capacity to empathize even if they are emotionally accepting.

In the case of GU-Q, for example, there are two permanent psychologists in charge of more than three hundred students. With more than 150 students per professional, the overwhelming of services can lead to difficulties in providing care to every individual who requires it. 

Solutions for the acceptance of mental health-care involve communities to no longer regarding mental illness as a source of shame and encouraging friends and family to frequently visit mental health professionals even if they do not feel that they are mentally ill. As for mental health professionals themselves, openness and understanding toward patients’ different backgrounds can help professionals treat them in a way that is best suited to their needs. 

An institutional change that needs to be implemented is the increase of funding towards mental health treatments, which should meet established standards as well as maintain the quality treatments of individuals. In the Georgetown community, this could mean adding a third counselor to the Student Wellness team, so that more people can receive counseling and therapists are not overloaded with patients.

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